Out of Office: Katie Has Fun in the Sun in Puerto Rico

December 8, 2014 by

Caribbean, Suggested Itineraries

Viator’s team of travel insiders is obsessed with finding the best things to do everywhere we travel. From traditional tours to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, everywhere from Australia to Zimbabwe, we spend our time scouring the globe for the best tours and activities around the world.

Kate making new friends in Puerto Rico

Kate making new friends in Puerto Rico

Whether traveling for work or pleasure (or both!) our staff members are always on the go and we want to share their experiences with you! In this new series, Out of Office, we’ll bring you their stories, highlighting the best things to do and see in destinations around the world, as experienced by a real Viator Insider.

The Traveler: Kate Cornell, Managing Editor of Products

What’s your role at Viator? I manage our global team of writers and editors who create tour descriptions and brand copy.

The trip: San Juan, Culebra, and Vieques, Puerto Rico, for 5 days in October 2014.

Why did you choose this destination? What appealed to you about the place?

Friends and I wanted to do a Caribbean vacation in late fall, and Puerto Rico had the right mix of cultural attractions and beaches. We also liked that it feels like a random Caribbean vacation spot for West Coast travelers. The seemingly random choice was affirmed when I was stuck on a plane in the JFK terminal, minutes from missing my connecting flight to San Juan. My seat buddies, a Long Island couple, got anxious for me and the wife insisted I tell the flight attendant to let me exit the plane first. The husband assumed it would be fine and told her to relax, and the wife shot back, “Who’s goin’ to Porta Richo at this time of ye-ah?”

She was sort of right. The dozen of us headed to San Juan missed our flight, and the majority of the group was Puerto Ricans traveling home from San Francisco. Moral of the story: If you’re willing to risk hurricane season or, in my case, missing a connecting flight (both flukes, c’mon) you’ll enjoy less crowds and beautiful weather there in October.

What did you do on the trip?

Old San Juan

Old San Juan

When we arrived, we got picked up at the airport courtesy of Viator’s San Juan airport transfer services. Our driver, Jose Morales, gave us a crash course on the superlative history of San Juan: the oldest fort in the United States over there; the birthplace of the piña colada down that cobbled street; the second oldest church in the Western hemisphere right there. It was a lovely, genuine introduction to his great city.

We spent a full day in Old San Juan, the Caribbean’s architectural equivalent to the French Quarter, eating and drinking our way around. We also checked out Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro), a 16th-century fort built by the Spanish government. If there had been more time, I would have loved to check out the Casa Blanca Museum, among the other historic landmarks.

We also made our way to Culebra and Flamenco Beach—more on that below—and spent the bulk of our trip on the island of Vieques, which you can only get to by plane, or a ferry from Fajardo.

Did you take any Viator tours?

Playing in the water off Culebra

Playing in the water off Culebra, photo by Christin Rose

We took the Culebra day trip by catamaran. It was by far one of the most memorable days of the trip. The crew was great, especially Keila and Raymond. We stopped at a beautiful protected reef near Carlos Rosario beach for about two hours of snorkeling and lunch. Underwater is decorated in ginormous brain coral and electric blue sea fans. Afterward, we headed to Flamenco Beach which is considered one of the prettiest beaches in the world. I could have laid in the powdery sand or hammocks all day, but I’m grateful that I least got a couple hours there.

What was the best experience?

Tranquil beach at Vieques

Tranquil beach at Vieques

I loved Vieques. It is the perfect place to slow down. The island is only 21 miles long and 3 miles wide, and most everyone knows each other there. You’ll quickly find that out making friends at a bar or café in Esperanza (Lazy Jack’s is a good place for that) or chatting up resort staff at places like the W Retreat and Spa or the buzzworthy El Blok. The water is heavenly no matter what side of the island you’re on (we stayed on the Atlantic side; Esperanza is on the Caribbean side). Many locals, even in San Juan, tout that the Caribbean side has some of the best beaches in all of Puerto Rico, if not the entire region.

Which attraction did you enjoy the most, and why?

The clear water off Culebra

The clear water off Culebra

It’s a toss-up: I really loved snorkeling in Culebra, but I also loved the bioluminescent bay (Bio Bay) in Vieques. A small group of us took glass-bottom kayaks out for what felt like a laser light show on the water. It’s a super laid-back outing where you get to sit under the stars and hear all about the twinkling organisms. Our guide called them party animals since they only glow at night; you can’t even get them to do it in a dark lab room. When I pulled my hand out of the water, it sparkled like I was wearing nature’s version of Michael Jackson’s glittery glove.

Important tip: Wear your bug spray because mosquitos are all over the place!

What surprised you the most about the destination?

How quickly you run out of time. We thought that spending four days and five nights would give us enough time to explore, but I feel like we just scratched the surface. I’d go back to experience things like Ponce’s Carnival that coincides with NOLA’s Mardi Gras, or Playa Sucia in Cabo Rojo.

What sight, activity, or experience would you tell people they should not skip?

Hotel Casablanca in Old San Juan

Hotel Casablanca in Old San Juan

No matter where you are in Puerto Rico, find time for a beach day. There are plenty of gorgeous spots that, even in the summer, you can get into for free and enjoy without crowds.

In San Juan, history buffs and art lovers should take advantage of free tours of some of the city’s historic landmarks like the Casa Blanca Museum and Noche de Galerias. There’s a ton of cool graffiti art all over the area, too.

And nature lovers should definitely get out on Bio Bay in Vieques or Fajardo, or go hiking and ziplining at El Yunque National Forest. Sadly, I didn’t get to see the rainforest, but there’s always next time.

What was the best thing you ate or drank?

Fish tacos in Puerto Rico

Fish tacos in Puerto Rico, photo by Christin Rose

All the seafood I ate was super fresh and tasty. Near Vieques’s ferry terminal in the town of Isabel II, there’s a bunch of affordable cafes and stands. I had what is to date my favorite smoothie ever, a blend of acai and blueberries, from a roadside stand for $2.

In San Juan, I loved the chicken-stuffed plantains and piña colada at Barrachina, a restaurant that many consider the birthplace of the drink. And the ceviche and rice and beans at Aquaviva were killer. For nightlife, we discovered a lot of the locals skip the Condado scene and hang out in Old San Juan at places like La Factoria (aka the Factory). We were there on a busy Halloween night, and the bartenders were shaking up innovative drinks on the fly based on what you liked. (Psst, they have a secret wine room in the back that they open on weekends.)  Across the street, we soaked up the drinks with some pub fare (Fish tacos! Chicken wings!) from La Taberna Lúpulo, a fun brewpub.

What are your top three recommendations to any visitor?

  • Speak Spanish if you can. Puerto Rico is a great place to brush up on or practice the language. If you’re struggling, people will switch over to English without batting an eye.
  • Appreciate the history around you. Americans might be surprised to learn that places like the Spanish colonial forts in San Juan are actually part of our national park system.
  • Find your way to a beach outside of San Juan for more of an island vibe. And wear sunscreen, especially in Vieques since it is situated 18 degrees from the equator.

What’s the best Insider Tip you can offer future visitors to this destination? 

Relaxing at La Taberna Lúpulo

Relaxing at La Taberna Lúpulo

Go with the flow. You should definitely have an itinerary set out for the stuff you really want to see, but leave some time in your schedule to get lost in conversation over coffee in a plaza, or in case you decide you want to take a (usually late) ferry to one of the surrounding islands.

Where are you off to next?

I’m headed to Vegas to see Elton John in January.

– Kate Cornell

Photos by Kate Cornell and Christin Rose (http://christinrose.com/ ). 

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